The Itchy Feet comic tells stories of language, culture, and travel from around the world. I usually can’t say much about the accuracy of the culture and travel stuff, but the language stuff is right on—the author has clearly had some education in linguistics.
Want to participate in a survey on how many kisses one gives to faire la bise (give the French cheek-kiss) in different parts of France, or just look up the survey results for your part of that beautiful country? Go to CombienDeBises.com. Click on a region to give your data, or mouse-over to see its survey results thus far.
Incidentally: my family is originally from Brittany, but we’ve been Parisian for a long time; we do the usual Ile-de-France two.
Out of the 256 possible interpretations of this headline, only TWO seem to be the most obvious ones. Why?
We’ve recently been talking about ambiguity. Ambiguity, from a linguist’s perspective, is the situation of having more than a single possible meaning, and as we’ve seen, there are MANY ways to be ambiguous.
Here’s a nice example. It comes from the renowned linguist and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. Like many linguists, he collects ambiguous headlines. They are not at all difficult to find, but some are cooler than others. Here’s his current favorite:
What can one say about this? From a linguistic perspective, what are the possible interpretations?
There is some doctor who does or does not have things going on with respect to his or her heart–we’ll get into what those things could be momentarily.
There is some doctor who said something about someone who does or does not have things going on with respect to his or her heart.
Now, the second interpretation is the intended one, so let’s go with it for the rest of the discussion. (We’ll talk later about what happens if we don’t.) What’s the issue with the rest?
One interpretation is that the comma indicates what’s called a kind of coordination or conjunction: it corresponds to or, and the intended meaning is that the person who’s being talked about does not have heart or cognitive issues. (That’s not the full story here–more below.)
Another interpretation is that the comma indicates a new clause. In this case, it would correspond to the doctor saying that the person under discussion does not have a heart, and also has cognitive issues.
How many possible meanings so far? We’ve listed four, but it’s a big underestimate.
Why does Pinker like this one so much? Because that last interpretation says this: Trump has no heart, and he also has cognitive issues. That jives pretty well with what I would say, personally, and apparently Pinker, too–so, yeah, I would love to see that in a newspaper (assuming that his cognitive issues didn’t lead to him nuking somebody in a petulant frenzy before he could be (legally) put out of office.
Now: we’re not done yet. Here are some remaining issues:
What is the scope of issues? Are we talking about heart issues and/or cognitive issues, or are we talking about cognitive issues, and some unspecified thing about the heart?
What is the scope of no? Are we talking about no heart and no cognitive issues, or are we asserting something about cognitive issues, plus something about there being no heart involved in some way?
What does heart mean? Are we talking about an anatomical organ, or are we talking metaphorically, where heart can mean something like inherent kindness? Or maybe we’re talking metaphorically, but where the metaphorical meaning of heart is something like courage? (See this video for the meaning of “heart,” “heart checks,” and “showing heart” in prison.) Does it mean a seasonal check on the core of timber? (Seriously–check it out on DictionaryOfConstruction.com.)
What does issue mean? We actually had a blog post that was primarily on that question, in the context of analyzing Henry Reed’s poem Returning of Issue.
So: how many interpretations of that headline are there? A low estimate would be two for each of the questions that we thought about above, so each one of those points doubles the number of possible interpretations. That’s 2 to the 8th power: 256 possible interpretations. You found another point of ambiguity? You just doubled the number of interpretations again, to 512. (Go ahead–find another one, and tell us about it in the Comments section.)
Here’s a question for you: of the 256 possible interpretations, just two of them seem to be the most obvious ones:
The one where the doctor is talking about someone else, where issues modifies (technically, “has scope over”) both heart and cognitive, the meaning of heart is the anatomical organ, and no modifies both of heart issues and cognitive issues.
The one where Trump is unkind and has cognitive issues.
…and here’s an observation for you: my profession is about getting computers to differentiate between the possible interpretations in biomedical journal articles and in health records, finding the one intended interpretation out of all of the possible ones. I don’t expect to have it solved any time soon. 🙂
Linguistics is similar to organic chemistry in some respects: how things combine tells you something about what those things are.
Tag questions are those simple little things that you use to get someone to give you a yes-or-no answer:
Trump sure needs a lot of little golf mini-vacays, doesn’t he?
Trump screwed the pooch on health care, didn’t he?
Trump lies a lot, doesn’t he?
Actually, they’re not so simple, those little questions…. They have an odd quirk that will give you a little bit of insight into how linguists think through things.
I often explain linguistics to people as being similar to organic chemistry in some respects: on one level, it’s about figuring out what the parts of language are, and how they go together. As is the case in organic chemistry, how the parts go together–or don’t–tells you something about what those parts are. An example: the distinction between auxiliary verbs and other verbs.
In general, scientists tend to start with the assumption that everything is the same until proven otherwise. Proving it to be otherwise is not always as simple as you might think–consider the fuzzy separation between things as basic as matter and energy in the physical universe. For the Encyclopédistes, separating the realm of the Divine from the realm of everything else was a major nouveauté–and one that they were condemned for. (This summer I saw a monastery library in Prague that had a gorgeous painted ceiling; the fresco included a scene of the Encyclopédistesbeing cast into Hell. This is why.)
Back to tag questions… In English, the verbs in tag questions exhibit an odd behavior. There are some verbs that can be in the “sentence” to which the tag is added, as well as in the tag. For example:
Trump is an asshole, isn’t he?
Trump could get impeached, couldn’t he?
Trump did reveal intelligence to the Russian ambassador, didn’t he?
But, most verbs can’t show up in the tag. Instead, they are replaced by did. For example:
Trump screwed the people who elected him with that tax bill, didn’t he?
Trump went kinda apeshit over the whole inauguration crowd thing, didn’t he? Insecure loser…
Trump lied about Obama’s birth certificate, didn’t he?
To a linguist, the fact that English verbs cluster into two groups–ones that can appear in the tag of a tag question, and ones that can’t–suggests that there are two distinct kinds of verbs in the language. This is one piece of evidence that you could use if you wanted to argue (and linguists do love to argue about language) that there is such a thing as a distinction between auxiliary verbs and other kinds of verbs. It’s just like organic chemistry–knowing how the parts go together tells you something about what they are.
See these previous posts on forming tag questions:
We’ve been working on tag questions with the verb to be recently. We worked on the third person singular (Trump is an asshole, isn’t he?) and the third person plural (Trump and his cronies ARE the swamp, aren’t they?). We did that in the present tense–let’s try the past tense now, ’cause the verb in the tag has to agree with the verb in the base sentence with respect to tense. (Still think that tag questions are simple?)
We’ll follow our usual structure for drills–half a dozen on the same model, half a dozen on a similar model, and then mix ’em up. Remember: we’re not testing ourselves–we’re practicing. This is fun! (…and this is why I never get a second date.)
Trump was a draft dodger during the Vietnam war.
Trump was a draft dodger during the Vietnam war, wasn’t he?
Trump was a draft dodger during the Vietnam war.
Trump was remarkably silent about Roy Moore for quite a while.
Obama was fucking wonderful for the economy.
Trump was given a draft deferment for bone spurs in his feet. Now he says he’s the healthiest president ever. Fucking coward.
Trump was more pissed about being criticized for his defense of the bigots in Charlottesville than he was about the poor girl that was murdered by a white supremacist.
Scroll down past the picture for the answers.
Trump was a draft dodger during the Vietnam war, wasn’t he?
Trump was remarkably silent about Roy Moore for quite a while, wasn’t he?
Obama was fucking wonderful for the economy, wasn’t he?
Trump was given a draft deferment for bone spurs in his feet, wasn’t he? Now he says he’s the healthiest president ever. Fucking coward.
Trump was more pissed about being criticized for his defense of the bigots in Charlottesville than he was about the poor girl that was murdered by a white supremacist, wasn’t he?
…and now the opposite polarity:
Trump wasn’t actually a very successful businessman.
Trump wasn’t above refusing to pay small businessmen who had done work for him.
Trump wasn’t embarrassed to declare bankruptcy.
Trump wasn’t honest with the students in his real estate “school.”
Trump wasn’t eager for war when he was still young enough to be drafted.
…and scroll down past the picture for the answers once again!
Trump wasn’t actually a very successful businessman, was he?
Trump wasn’t above refusing to pay small businessmen who had done work for him, was he?
Trump wasn’t embarrassed to declare bankruptcy, was he?
Trump wasn’t honest with the students in his real estate “school,” was he?
Trump wasn’t eager for war when he was still young enough to be drafted, was he?
la fresque: fresco.
vacay: slang for “vacation.” How it was used in the post: Trump sure needs a lot of little golf mini-vacays, doesn’t he?
to screw the pooch: “Pooch” is a slang term for “dog.” I would call it archaic, personally–but, I think I might be wrong about that. To wit: if you compare its frequency to the frequency of the word dog, it’s clearly quite rare–here’s a graph of their frequencies in English-language books over the course of the 200 years from 1800 to 2000:
Now, to screw the pooch: Wiktionary defines it as to screw up; to fail in dramatic and ignominious fashion. That’s bad. Ooooooh, this is interesting–I just looked for screw the pooch (and its past tense and present participial forms) on Google Ngrams, and look what I found–its frequency jumps around the same time that we saw a jump in pooch:
Could the mid-1980s resurgence of pooch that we saw in the second graph be due to a growth in the use of screw the pooch? Possibly so. Wiktionary says that the expression to screw the pooch became popular due to its appearance in Tom Wolfe’s book The right stuff in 1979 and its film adaptation in 1983–these graphs certainly support that timing!
Is natural language processing a way of processing language–a natural way–or is it the processing of a kind of language–natural language? I love having an ambiguous profession.
Ambiguity is the condition of having more than one meaning:
Il y a ambiguïté lorsqu’à une forme unique correspondent plusieurs significations.
Notice that Fuchs uses the word forme: ambiguity is not limited to the meanings of words. A form could just as well be a phrase (something smaller than a sentence), or a sentence.
Two things to know about ambiguity:
It is a feature of every human language.
Almost everything that you say, hear, read, or write today will be ambiguous in some way.
Ambiguity is absolutely pervasive and ubiquitous in language. The thing is, humans are excellent at “recovering” the intended meaning–so good at it then we only recognize ambiguity a minuscule fraction of the times that we come across it. The other thing is: a computer program that does things with language cannot ignore it. In fact, you could think of my job as being getting computers to resolve ambiguity–to choose which of multiple possible interpretations is the intended one.
Humor often works by manipulating ambiguities. It does this by forcing you to find the interpretation–the meaning–that you wouldn’t have expected. I’ll give you an example:
This is an example of a structural ambiguity. The two possible meanings correspond to two different syntactic structures. In the one where it’s Sherlock who’s using the binoculars, using binoculars is “attached to” the verb saw. In the one where it’s the man who’s using the binoculars, using binoculars is “attached to” the man. Here are the two syntactic structures, from the blog Walk in the Words:
When I teach natural language processing (see the ambiguity there? Is natural language processing a way of processing language–a natural way–or is it the processing of a kind of language–natural language? I love having an ambiguous profession), an exercise that I give students early in the semester is to go through a bunch of things–mostly comics in which ambiguity is the mechanism of the humor–and explain to me how the ambiguity works. Wanna try it yourself? Here you go.
Oh–about natural language processing? It’s processing of “natural language,” which means human languages, as opposed to computer languages. An essential difference between the two? All human languages are ambiguous, but no computer language is ambiguous.
French has lots of words that correspond to the English word when, and knowing when to use each one is essentially beyond me. (For perspective: I have a C1 level in French. That’s one higher than you need to attend–or to teach in–a French university.) The only expression that I sorta know how to use is for saying that something happens at the same time as some event. It’s lors de. Here are some examples of it in use:
Lors de ma présentation à Versailles « and so i’m very famous because I put sometimes on twitter the update of fromwhatdoweindignatetoday.xlsx ». Tha audience is applausing.
Here lors de modifies l’Exposition Universelle de 1878–the Universal Expo of 1878. Again: an event.
Aujourd’hui on aura eu:
-Un fight entre chômeurs dans les Intermarché pour du Nutella
-Des chameaux botoxés dans un concours de beauté
-Une meuf qui se fait soulever dans le rer D comme à l’hôtel
-Et Jawad qui fait un sketch lors de son procès
Lors de son procès: during his trail. Again, an event. Oh, and yes—the botox scandal during the camel beauty contest really did happen. Is happening, actually–12 offending camels found as of yesterday. Here’s the story on Les matins de France Culture.
I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to be interesting. Which is to say: my professional life mostly consists of writing things; or, more accurately, my professional life mostly consists of writing papers or grant proposals; or, more accurately, my professional life mostly consists of writing papers such that objective third parties will recommend that they be published, or grant proposals such that objective third parties will recommend that they be funded; or, more accurately, my professional life mostly consists of writing things in such a way that objective third parties won’t be pissed off about the fact that they’re being asked to read them, ’cause if they’re pissed while they’re reading, they’re unlikely to recommend either publishing (in the case of articles) or funding (in the case of grant proposals). I know (from long experience reading other people’s papers and grant reviews) that a good way to piss someone off about the fact that they’ve been asked to read your stuff is to not be interesting; so: I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to be interesting.
What’s interesting is, I imagine, dependent on context; my context (in my professional life, at any rate) is an academic one. In an academic context, I can think of two ways to be interesting:
Show that something that looks really complicated is actually quite simple.
Show that something that looks really simple is actually quite complicated.
Some examples of being interesting by showing that something that looks really complicated is actually quite simple:
Darwin showing that the amazing, astounding, overwhelming diversity of life is explainable by one principle.
Chomsky claiming that the incredible diversity of human languages is all based on a small set of shared principles. (I’m leaving out a bunch of details here. Hell, I’m leaving out a bunch of details everywhere in this post–I’m just painfully aware of them in this case, ’cause I’m a linguist.)
The ideal gas law, which describes the relationship between the pressure and the volume and the temperature and the number of molecules in a sample of a gas with one beautiful little equation. (We were very amused by the equation in the Navy. Written PV = NRT, you could imagine pronouncing it “pervnert,” which sounds a lot like pervert, which we thought was super-funny.
Some examples of being interesting by showing that something that looks really simple is actually quite complicated:
Newton showing that the single most obvious fact about the world–if you haven’t watched a baby figuring out that it exists, you’ve really missed something (and you could fix that–go adopt someone, the need is enormous)–is, in fact, what holds the entire fucking physical universe together.
Gender–it’s supposed to be super-simple (only two, and you can tell which one you are by standing in the mirror). Turns out it’s much more complicated than that, and if you think that it all boils down to chromosomes: it’s more complicated than that. (The link takes you to a World Health Organization page that talks about some of the possibilities beyond XY sex chromosomes–there are complexities in each of the seven waysthat gender gets taxonomized in the biomedical literature alone.)
I had a hell of a lot less trouble coming up with examples of being interesting by showing that something apparently complicated is actually quite simple than I did coming up with examples of being interesting by showing that something apparently simple is actually quite complicated. Does that mean that one is better than the other? Does that mean that I have a biased sample of interesting things? Does that mean that I have a warped sense of what is interesting? Does that mean that I need to get more sleep (I was singing Il est 5 heures, Paris s’éveille(which, now that I think about it, is relevant to the how-many-genders question) at 5 AM, ’cause I had been awake since midnight)? I really don’t know. Someone have examples to add? I’ll just step out on the balcony for a cigarette while you do that…
to step out on: A nice ambiguity! To step out on someone has a very specific meaning, and it’s not what I meant here–so, why not take this opportunity to go over an odd little corner of the English language?
To step out typically means to–either literally or metaphorically–exit something by walking a very short distance. It can be followed by lots of things, particularly prepositions:
You can step out on something, which you could paraphrase as to step out onto something, and it just means that you exited something by walking a very short distance, and then you were located on something:
Now Google isstepping out onthat dance floor every day.
It’s likestepping out onthe highwire in the big tent without the net.
Stepping out onthe patio after getting into our robes, we felt the heat of the 80 degree sun – aah!
We have come to rescue you! yelled the young inventor, as he stepped out onthe deck, with his electric rifle in his hand.
I was in complete shock after inching my drivers side door open with all of my might, andstepping out onto the pavement…
They paint an irresistible picture of Al in his bathrobe rolling over and over on the floor with his young son at his Miami villa orstepping out onthe porch in his carpet slippers to smash bottles floating in the ocean with a machine-gun named Queenie.
However: to step out on (a person) means to cheat on them, to be unfaithful to them. More vulgarly: to “fuck around on” them. (Ooooh–two prepositions in a row!) Some examples:
Poor Anna got caughtstepping out onher old man – again.
Some of the boys heard rumours that she wasstepping out onme.
Mom was never really all that happy, I think after hestepped out on her she had a fling, or tried.
Frank didn’t have the taste for that sort of work–chasing down bail jumpers or tracking husbandsstepping out ontheir wives.
And it looks like Emma Frost will bestepping out onCyclops with the King of Atlantis, which really doesn’t surprise me at all.
Yep, what if folks knew up front that he wasstepping out onhis wife; wouldn’t that pretty much kill the whole idea of being vulnerable to blackmail, etc.?